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The High Tech Heart: Wireless Heart Rate Monitors


Whether you’re in cardiac rehabilitation or you’re just interested in learning about your heart rate and fitness level, you might want to think about getting a wireless heart rate monitor. Wireless monitors have been available for about 20 years. Initially, the cost was too high for the average exerciser. It was typically elite athletes who used the monitors. These days, you can get a basic model for about $50 or $60. Prices can go up to about $300 for monitors with all the bells and whistles—ability to download data to your computer, large memory that can track your performance over time, built-in fitness tests and charts, etc.

Why concern myself with heart rates?
The heart is a muscle, and aerobic exercise makes it stronger. When you’re heart is in good shape, it works more efficiently at rest and pumps more blood with each beat. In other words, you work your heart hard while you’re exercising, and then when it’s at rest it doesn’t have to work hard to function well.

The question is, how hard should you work your heart?

When you’re exercising, the idea is to get your heart beating at 50 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. The maximum rate depends on your age. Roughly, you subtract your age from 220. For example, if you’re 30 years old, your maximum heart rate is 190 beats per minute. When you’re exercising, you would want your heart to beat 95-142 times per minute, starting out in the lower range and building to the higher range over a period of weeks.

Why get a monitor?
If you’ve been working out for years and you know your heart’s in good shape, you’re probably not the best candidate for a monitor because you’re already in tune with your fitness level. But if you’re thinking about training for a big race, or if you’re just getting started on a heart-healthy exercise program, a heart rate monitor can help you track your progress.

How do monitors work? In almost all cases, monitors include what’s called a “transmitter belt” that picks up the heart’s electrical impulses and a wristwatch-like receiver that displays the information. The most basic monitors can store an hour’s worth of heart rate readings, play back the total exercise time and give you the average heart rate for the exercise period. The drawback is that an hour isn’t enough time for all exercises. Cyclists, for example, often ride for longer.

Monitors that cost $200 or a little less can calculate things like calories burned, resting heart rate, training zones and even when it’s time to drink water. These types of monitors require you to punch in a fair amount of information, so you need to be willing to spend some time pushing buttons.

For about $300, you can get a monitor that links to computers that run Windows programs. Some of these monitors create charts and graphs that track your progress over time.

Keep moving, monitor or not
If you’re interested in learning more about heart rate monitors, talk to your doctor, a personal trainer or a member of a cardiac rehab team. They can help you find one that’s best suited to your needs. Be sure to clear any new exercise program with your doctor first. If you’re taking any medication, such as some blood pressure drugs, find out whether they affect your maximum heart rate.

And remember—you can get your heart in good shape without a monitor. Exercising almost every day for 30 to 45 minutes is the most important thing.

The American Heart Association; The New York Times, 20 June 2002
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